Work Header

Take My Heart

Chapter Text

“Jayce, you can’t keep doing this to yourself.”

Mel’s voice snapped Jayce out of the doze he’d nearly fallen into, and immediately he went back to work. Or tried. His hands shook, the diagram spread out in front of him doubled, then tripled, as his vision swam. The hextech replacement eye that sat in his left socket like a monocle struggled to keep up with his exhaustion, the blue screen making his disorientation worse as it kept highlighting things for him, oblivious to his state of mind.

Mel wrapped her arms around his shoulders.

“Come to bed,” she said. “Please. At the very least, you need to rest.”

“I’m so close,” he insisted. “If I can just—”

Mel gently turned his head up to look at her. The years since Viktor’s transformation into an emotionless machine had been much kinder to her than they had him. There was more gray in her hair, but nearly not as much as his. She didn’t bare any scars, either, though her mother no doubt considered it a yet another disgrace—not that they talked anymore. Jayce had a feeling that at the rate things were going, Ambessa would outlive them all. 

But then, people like her often lived unjustly long lives, no matter how much havoc they wreaked upon the lives of others—just look at Singed, still going in spite of time, shimmer, and all their best efforts to root him out. Other pillars of Zaun’s underworld rose and fell, but Doctor Singed was a constant.

Jayce blamed the fact Viktor was working with him again, but Singed was far from their only target as Viktor’s return to the fold inevitably led conflict with Zaun to flare up worse than ever.

While Mel strategized from the safety of war rooms, Jayce carried those plans out, charging directly into the fray against constructs, augmented soldiers, and brain bots—brain bots! Horrors never ceased—Viktor was behind. It wasn’t often Jayce came up against Viktor himself, but their one-on-one fights were always savage. Jayce had his missing eye to show for that.

The thing was Jayce should’ve lost a lot more in the fight.

But Viktor had hesitated. The merciless Machine Herald hesitated, giving Jayce the opening he needed to escape with his life.

That was what had inspired Jayce’s latest project—now nearly ready for production and, if he was extremely lucky, testing. It was ridiculous, it would probably end up getting him killed, but he had to try.

He knew Mel doubted it would work, but she didn’t discourage him from it. She only wanted him to stop killing himself working on it at all hours.

Reasonable. That’s why Jayce loved her, she was always there to ground him, keep him from burning out. He wished she could be that for Viktor again, too.

Was he working day and night down in Zaun? Did Viktor even need rest now? Or had he evolved beyond that, too? Jayce worried even as he plotted at how to get at his partner turned mortal enemy.

Sometimes—no, quite often—it pained him to think of how close he’d come to fixing things between them, only to have it all explode in his face.

Jayce swiveled in his chair and sagged against Mel. It was an awkward embrace when he was still sitting and she was standing up, but he was so tired he couldn’t manage anything more.

“Do you remember before?” He asked. “All those years ago? When Viktor and I broke back into the Academy to continue my research?”

Mel laughed quietly as she stroked his head. “How could I forget? At the time it was perhaps the riskiest gamble I had ever made.”

“I’m glad you bet on us, Mel.”

“I’m still betting on you both, Jayce.”

He looked up. Mel leaned in and kissed him.

“But the odds are much better if you’re not falling asleep at your desk. Come on.”

She helped him up to bed, where for once he didn’t dream of that robotic voice’s cruel laughter echoing as Piltover burned.

Jayce never stopped hoping things could be better for the city, but it wasn’t until recently that he rediscovered any chance of hope for Viktor, too.

Jayce stared at the protype when it was finally complete.

The heart glowed faintly blue. Jayce could just imagine Viktor—the old Viktor, the one he used to work side by side with in the lab—scoffing and saying the design was so typically him with all that blue, gold, and white in the gleaming finished product.

“It is, isn’t it…” Jayce muttered.

He picked up a hextech multi-tool and aimed a laser at it. His signature glowed along the the side of the metal myocardium before fading. Jayce picked up the finished product, hoping he hadn’t weakened the overall structure with that impulsive move. It felt surprisingly light in his hands. It looked small, too. But then, Viktor wasn’t as big as all that armor made him seem.

If there was even anything left under that metal shell.

Jayce squeezed the heart. He had to believe there was something of Viktor left to save. Why else would he have done this? It wasn’t as though replacement hearts were new. His wasn’t even much of an improvement on existing models. A little sleeker, maybe. Even needlessly flashy for something that wasn’t even supposed to be seen once installed. 

The sleekness was the old Viktor, before he made himself into a hulking war machine, the flashiness was all Jayce—and the intricate designs he carved into the metal? That was inspired by Mel. She had a love of running her fingers over finely textured things even if there was no hidden mechanism to be unlocked, no puzzle to be solved.

This heart was his, but it was also theirs. Jayce had to believe it would work.

He’d looked into other cases of hextech heart transplants. They didn’t become soulless husks devoid of emotion. The people he talked to were as healthy and happy as anyone else who needed a body part replaced, if perhaps a little self conscious of it. 

Jayce tapped the lens of his artificial eye. He still wasn’t quite used to it, either. The blue screen barely flickered at his touch before it zoomed in on where he was looking. Analyzing.

No flaws were detected.

The hextech heart was perfect.

Once, long ago, he might have gloated over it. He and Viktor would go back and forth, with Viktor insisting it could only truly be proven in practical testing. That was when any yet unseen flaws would be revealed. 

The old Jayce would welcome the chance to prove his work. Now Jayce dreaded it.

A soft knock at the door spared him from thinking about that just yet.

“Come in.”

Mel entered. 

“I thought about bringing drinks to celebrate,” she said. “But I didn’t want to be too—oh my.”

Jayce held the heart up for her to see. Mel reached out to touch it, and hesitated. 

Jayce laughed a little at her hesitance. 

“It really does look like something you should just put on a shelf to admire, huh?”

He placed the heart in her hands. If it could stand up to his scarred and calloused fingers pawing at it, then her delicate touch would certainly do it no harm. 

“It’s beautiful,” Mel gasped. 

Jayce smiled as she traced the intricate designs woven into the metalwork with her fingers. It was wholly unnecessary to the function, but Jayce just couldn’t help himself. He wanted something equal to the ring he and Mel picked out back before everything fell apart.

“It’ll work,” Jayce said, mostly to reassure himself. “In theory, anyway… I can’t exactly test it out on anyone else first.”

Mel leaned in as she noticed the writing on it, and arched an eyebrow as she handed the heart back. “Did you really have to sign it, Jayce Talis?”

“Maybe it’s more my heart than his,” Jayce admitted. “But it should work. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and… something just doesn’t add up. What Singed did…”

Mel folded her arms. “Go on.”

“I don’t know his exact methods,” Jayce said, starting to pace. “I don’t think I wanna know, even if it maybe would be useful to counteract…” He stopped and looked down at the freshly forged heart, barely resisting the urge to spike it on the ground in anger. It could take the impact, but still. 

“Ugh! Forget it!”

“Some paths are better left unexplored,” Mel agreed. “But you were saying?”

“Hextech prosthetics are getting common now.” Jayce pointed at his own eye. “But they don’t make you any less human. Or better than human.”

“Of course not.”

“I know the shimmer didn’t help matters any, but to have such an extreme effect…” Jayce doubled back, rubbing his thumb over the gleaming lens capping the polished blue crystal that served as the heart’s true power source. The glow intensified for a moment. 

“Intent,” Jayce declared. “It’s all about intent.”

Mel moved closer. “The basics of magic? Of hextech?”

Jayce smiled and nodded, glad she remembered, but of course she would. Mel listened to him ramble about it so much, often while they were in bed together. He loved the way she’d look at him with her head propped up on one arm with her hair falling down around it, just listening to him go on and on, helping him work out problems by stopping him from going round in circles in his own head.

He wished Viktor could be there, too.

Soon, he hoped. Unless Jayce was wrong about everything. Then he’d just be giving him an upgraded power source.

“So you’re saying…” Mel took the heart from Jayce again, examining it as if it were a particularly complex puzzle box. “Viktor lost all emotion because Singed wished it so? Otherwise it would just be like any other transplant?”

“He’s always manipulated him,” Jayce said. “Viktor calling him his ‘mentor’ was just… just...”

Wrong. Sick. Twisted. Jayce couldn’t pick a word.

“I know, Jayce.” Mel’s gaze turned distant as she stared at the heart—through it. Her expression was somber. “Even if a relationship is an undeniably toxic one, it can still be hard to shake feelings of… gratitude for being raised by someone.” 

She handed the heart back to Jayce, making him almost feel like they were playing some sort of game by passing it back and forth. It felt strangely warm in his hands.

Mel cupped her elbow in her hand as she paced away from him, touching the other to her chin thoughtfully. Jayce was beginning to feel guilty for making her think about her own upbringing.

“Or maybe a feeling of obligation is more the word I’m looking for here,” she continued, turning her free hand out as though this were any other debate. “All it takes is a few scraps of happy memories to convince yourself it wasn’t all that bad. That perhaps you deserved any ill treatment.”


She held her hand up. “I’m fine. I’m only saying I know where Viktor’s coming from. Not a gas-filled fissure, but rather someone who draws you close with one hand and strikes you with the other, all the while saying it’s to make you stronger.” She scowled. “I’ve been told the ‘good’ Doctor Singed is very much the same sort.”

“You’ve been doing research of your own, huh?”

Mel smirked. “Why have spies if you’re not going to use them?”

Jayce’s hextech monocle whirred as his surviving eye widened. “Mel! I thought we all agreed…”

“No spies? No assassins? That we win this war honorably in spite of their tactics?” Mel put her hands on her hips. “That all changed when you nearly died, Jayce! Unfortunately you couldn’t be present for that particular vote, but it’s rare we ever have full attendance anymore, isn’t it?”

Jayce was still reeling from the revelation when Mel traced a finger along his beard—a sad, somewhat wistful smile crossing her beautiful face. “I do love how, no matter what, you remain the same idealist I adored from the very beginning.”

Jayce’s lips twitched, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile back. He wanted to tell her she was wrong, that he had changed considerably from the young man who never dreamed of his inventions being used for war, but she never saw him out there—never saw what it made him become to survive. 

Jayce always thought Mel staying off the battlefield was sparing her from the worst of it, but he was wrong. 

He looked down at the heart. His last hope. This constant fighting between Piltover and Zaun was wearing everyone down, changing them all for the worse in countless ways.

It had to stop.

One way or another.

The heart glowed faintly in his hands, promising everything and nothing.

What was that saying? No plan survives contact with the enemy? 

It never felt more true as Jayce soared backwards through a window into an abandoned factory. A pallet of empty wooden crates helpfully broke his fall, but it still hurt.

Part of him was surprised the huge space wasn’t bustling with activity even in the middle of the night, but then the conflict had been dragging on for years now. Zaun couldn’t keep operating at peak efficiency like it did at the beginning. Both sides were getting worn down, Piltover’s resources be damned. The people were tired of fighting—and making more weapons to keep fighting.

Except for Viktor, who seemed to be unstoppable.

Jayce was back on his feet and ready as Viktor landed in the middle of the empty factory floor. The ground shuddered from the impact. A shard of glass still hanging in the broken window teetered and fell. 

Jayce tightened his grip on his hammer. Viktor had actually done him a favor by knocking him into this building. If he tried that power siphoning trick of his—and Jayce knew at this point the factory’s power grid was more tantalizing a target to draw energy from that he was—he’d be ready.

“We don’t have to fight,” Jayce insisted.

“You keep saying that.” Viktor’s voice was coldly observational as he stalked forward. His latest armor made him virtually indistinguishable from Blitzcrank, whom Jayce’s allies had drawn far from their battle. That part was at least still going according to plan.

“But, yes, Talis.” Viktor raised his staff. It wasn’t a cane anymore, it was a weapon. “We do.”

Jayce brought his hammer down at the same time as Viktor slamming his staff into the ground, the pieces of the head flying apart as the core was revealed to pulse against Viktor’s attempt to drain the dormant factory’s energy.

Only the resulting flash of blue was much brighter than he anticipated. Jayce closed his good eye against it while his hextech monocle beeped an alert, the display warning of him of a power surge before the screen fizzled and went dark.

Lights danced in front of the eye he could still open. The other was as good as an eyepatch until it could reboot.

Viktor was sprawled on the ground several feet away. The glowing gold eyes of his mask were flickering while blue sparks visibly arced across his armor.

Jayce rushed forward. He couldn’t lose this opportunity. He took the heart from the inner pocket of his jacket. It was so hot now he had to toss it from hand to hand. Was that why the pulse had been so powerful just then? Had it added to it?

No time to wonder now.

Every second Jayce wasted was more time for Viktor’s shocked system to recover. Wary of the hexclaw still aimed vaguely in his direction, though it showed no signs of charging yet, he ran his hands along the bulky chest plate until he found the release. It was well hidden. If he hadn’t done this before, with one of the previous models, Jayce easily could have missed it.

He barely spared a glance at the mess beneath the chest plate once he threw it aside. Viktor’s real body had to be underneath all that wiring somewhere, but Jayce had to focus on the glowing power source that was his heart.

Jayce picked up his replacement with both hands, frantically wiping the dirt off it—not that it mattered, the key ports located at the ventricles were all sealed.

“Please,” Jayce whispered. He pressed a kiss to the lens over the crystal. It flared brighter.

A faint whirring warned him Viktor’s body was coming back online. Jayce’s hextech monocle also blinked and flickered back on. 

It was now or never.

Jayce yanked out Viktor’s heart and replaced it with his own. 

The moment the last connection was made, the heart flared. Viktor’s eyes flashed brightly. 

The distorted screaming from the speaker of his mask echoed all throughout the empty warehouse.

Jayce staggered away to retrieve his hammer, worrying he’d made a terrible mistake as Viktor writhed on the ground in agony.

The heart, so much smaller than the last one yet so much more powerful, bobbed and weaved in his chest, held in place by the wires connecting it. Sometimes Viktor’s metal fingers brushed it as he clawed at himself, but he wasn’t trying to remove the replacement—it seemed more like his entire body was the problem now.

Just when it seemed Viktor’s thrashing couldn’t get any worse, that his screaming might blow out the mask’s speaker, both abruptly stopped. 

Viktor’s body went limp, just as it had when the supercharged pulse knocked him out of action.

Jayce cautiously approached, hammer at the ready.

“Oh, Jayce….”

He jumped at the sound of Viktor’s voice, still distorted by the mask.

Jayce. Viktor called him Jayce. Not Talis. Also, he wasn’t trying to kill him. 

It worked.

“Brilliant, unflappable, absolutely incorrigible Jayce…” Viktor’s voice was torn between adoration and anguish as he ran through a small selection of some of the nicer things he had called him in the past. “I truly wish you had not attempted this now—after everything I’ve done.”

“I don’t care,” Jayce said. “It worked, didn’t it? I can hear it in your voice.”

The sense of victory that usually bolstered him upon seeing an invention work was absent. All Jayce felt was anxiety.

“My faceplate,” Viktor said, gesturing with his hexclaw. “Take it off. You need to see.”

As with the body portion of the armor, the new mechanisms weren’t that different, though the helmet was. Jayce recoiled slightly as the front part of his the mask popped up with a hiss of steam as he disengaged the locks. That was new. 

“How much worse could it really be?” Jayce tried to smirk, but he was stalling and they both knew it. “You shave your head or something?”

“Jayce, please.”

The familiar note of exasperation in Viktor’s voice was reassuring, if nothing else.

Right, if Jayce just got the mask off, he’d know the truth. That, and the mechanical filter over Viktor’s voice would stop.

Jayce removed the faceplate.

His mouth dropped open.

“I…” Jayce couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. “Vik, what…?”

There was no face behind the mask. Taking off the faceplate only revealed the inner workings of the machine—glowing gold optical orbs, wires and sensors, and a speaker in the place of a mouth.

“After Singed removed my heart, and as replacing other parts became more and more problematic, I ultimately determined that the only thing I truly needed to preserve was my brain.”

“But my prototype worked!” Jayce seized the sides of Viktor’s head, staring at those empty orbs as he yelled. “I can hear it in your voice! It worked!”

“True…” Doubt and confusion were thick in Viktor’s mechanical voice. It still sounded like him. Had he preserved his old vocal cords, Jayce wondered, or was it modeled off recordings? “That I cannot explain.”

“I guess you’ll want it undone, then.” Jayce reached for the heart slotted awkwardly into Viktor’s inner workings, but a dented gauntlet grabbed his wrist to stop him.

“No, don’t!” 

The speaker on Viktor’s voice box squealed as he yelled, not tuned for any sudden spikes of volume. Why should it be when no true machine would ever have outbursts of emotion? 

Jayce recoiled at the shrill noise.

“Leave it,” Viktor said quietly as he let go, clearly embarrassed. “My core system—that is, my brain—still needs a power source, and you fried the other one with your antics.”

“So it’s live with emotions again or death.”

But what kind of life was this? A brain in a jar? Was this the epitome of Viktor’s glorious evolution?

“For now,” he said.

Jayce couldn’t hide his disappointment—or anger.

“So you’re just gonna have Singed fix you up, is that it? Restore you to factory defaults?”

“I am one of a kind,” Viktor scoffed.

“And the other brain bots were just proof of concept, right?”

“People volunteered for that procedure, Talis.”

“Just like you volunteered to have your heart ripped out?”



“Because I was a fool!” Viktor roared. “I didn’t know why you and Mel were really out shopping for rings! I couldn’t imagine… and it hurt so much in that moment I couldn’t let those feelings continue!”

Jayce had no idea what to say to that. They should have told him beforehand. If they had, then… what? Would much have changed? Would Viktor still have gone back to Singed in the end?

Were they always doomed to end up on opposing sides?

“After it was done,” Viktor continued, speaking like he once did when recounting experiments gone wrong—slowly, methodically, all the while struggling to keep the emotion out of his voice. “I found the ring that was meant for me… it meant nothing.”

“And now?”

Viktor laughed softly, ruefully, as he held one hand up in front of his sensors, flexing each finger.

There was no ring present.

“Now it hurts exponentially more.”

It was a little easier to look at Viktor again when his helmet was back in one piece, but not by much. He didn’t bother trying to put his chest plate back together, nor did he say much, so Jayce took to pacing their former arena while Viktor processed his thoughts and rediscovered emotions.

It was too quiet. The sounds of fighting elsewhere in the undercity were dying down. People on both sides would be looking for them soon. 

Mel was standing by, ready to grossly misuse resources to help Jayce with his plan, they just didn’t know if Viktor would be coming back with him.

“So what now?” Jayce asked.

Viktor sat up to examine the new heart dangling in his open chest like a jeweled insect caught in a spiderweb of wires.

“I’ll go with you,” Viktor said.

“In that armor?” Jayce laughed. “Might as well just announce I’m bringing one of Piltover’s Most Wanted home with me.”

“Only one of?” 

Jayce could imagine Viktor’s wry smile as he said it. Damn, he missed that.

“Jinx has you beat this month, sorry.”

“She can keep her ranking, then.” Viktor reached into his chest. “I’m effectively retiring now.”

A click, a hiss of inner hydraulics disengaging, and Viktor suddenly collapsed like an oversized puppet that had just had its strings cut.

“Vik!” Jayce rushed forward. He was getting a little old to be sliding to his knees, especially after the fight they just had, but the pain wouldn’t catch up with him until later, when the equally sudden burst of adrenaline wore off. “What did you do?!”

“Relax, Jayce.” Viktor sounded amused. “I’m still conscious.”

“You don’t look it!”

“Disconnecting my motor functions will do that, yes.” And, indeed, the eyes of his mask were still glowing brightly. That was probably all that mattered. “Now I need you to follow my instructions to finish unhooking me from this body.”


“You said it yourself, I can’t go back looking like this,” Viktor replied. “And you’re correct. I won’t.”

“But…” Jayce’s hands hovered over the chest cavity, feeling foolish for ever hoping its size meant Viktor’s body was hidden beneath all those wires somewhere. No, it was built for maximum efficiency. A ‘faulty’ human body would only get in the way. “There’s nothing left.”

“There’s my head,” Viktor corrected him. “And your heart. Those two things are all you need to take with you.”

Mel was ready when Jayce signaled for the pickup. Her face fell when she greeted him on the airship deck to find he was apparently alone. The original plan had been to get Viktor out of his armor and disguise him, but so much for that.

“Did it…” She paused as she looked Jayce over and frowned. He must have looked pretty beat up. “Not go well?”

The adrenaline had long since worn off by then, leaving Jayce’s knees aching fiercely, to say nothing of his other wounds. Viktor had really given him a run for his money back there. The wind picked up as Jayce crossed the gangplank, making him shiver.

He had taken his coat off to wrap around his unnervingly light cargo. The bundle fit easily under his free arm while he let his hammer rest on his shoulder like always, but every time he heard the soft clink of metal on metal from within the bundle, an irrational part of him was certain the contents were going to shatter.

“I don’t wanna talk about it.” Jayce’s tone was defeated, but he met Mel’s eyes to give her a significant look. “Not here. Not right now.”

Too many people were watching.

“I understand,” she said, giving him a pat on the shoulder before turning and yelling the order to take the ship up.

Jayce watched as they left Zaun behind. 

The ship was a fair distance away before the explosion occurred.

Thanks to Jinx, no one paid much attention to such things anymore—so long as they didn’t happen in Piltover territory—but the direction made Jayce zoom in on it with his monocle.

It was the abandoned factory—right where they left Viktor’s empty shell. 

Jayce involuntarily squeezed the bundle under his arm.

Had opportunistic Zaunite scavengers already descended to try dismantling the armor? Or had Viktor remotely triggered the detonation to hide the evidence? It could even be he caused all the explosion right as scavengers approached, killing them before they ever had the chance to touch the remains.

And couldn’t he have done that the moment Jayce first messed with it, too?

He was stuck silently wondering about that the entire flight back home.

The heart didn’t end up on the mantle like Jayce had joked. Instead, he placed it back on his desk—right next to Viktor’s head. A cord of thick, insulated wires ran from the helmet like a flexible spine. It didn’t take many wires to link to the heart, and once Jayce had disconnected all the other parts he found the now unused lines all neatly folded back together so nothing dangled loosely or was at risk at tangling.

“Very efficient,” Jayce muttered.

“Yes, I thought so too,” Viktor agreed, surprising him. Once again Jayce almost forgot Viktor was still in there and fully cognizant of everything. “Though it took several iterations to work out something sufficiently sturdy and reusable.”

“But you weren’t the test subject.”

“Talis, I told you…”

“I’m sorry.” Mel stepped forward. “Can we pause a moment, please? That is Viktor’s head you’re arguing with!”

“Technically only the brain,” Viktor replied. “Though with a number of interfacing devices, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Mel was horrified. “Where is the rest?”

“Gone,” Jayce snarled. “Thrown out. All in the name of ‘glorious evolution.’”

“Don’t say it like that,” Viktor snapped back at him. “You always say it like that!”

“You destroyed yourself, Viktor!”

“I made myself better!” The speaker squealed as Viktor’s angry yelling clipped it once again.

“That’s quite enough!” Mel stepped between them, putting her hand on the desk since Viktor had no body to push back. “We’re all rational adults here.”

“I was nothing but rational until he did this to me!”

“And you were…” Jayce laughed bitterly. “You couldn’t even be happy then, could you?”

“I was…” Viktor stopped mid-retort. “I…”

“You what?” Jayce demanded, but Mel gently held him back.

“This is surely a lot for him to process,” she said.

The perfectly innocent choice of words was too much for Jayce right then.

“He’s not actually a machine, damn it!” He yelled, pointing at the metal head on the desk. “No matter what you tear out, Viktor, you’re still human at your very core. You’re still…” All the anger left Jayce at once. He was tired, he hurt all over, and he was yelling at a damn tin can. 

This was ridiculous. 

He was ridiculous.

“You’re still you,” Jayce said softly. “And I still love you.”

Silence fell.

Mel kept her hand on Jayce’s chest, but now instead of holding him back, it was more like she was bracing him.

“You’re both right,” Viktor declared. “I need time to think—and to rest.” The second bit was admitted grudgingly. Jayce could just imagine Viktor giving him one of those looks as he said it, though in reality there was still nothing to see but a featureless mask. “Try as I might to reach peak performance by eliminating the need for sleep, the human mind simply cannot endure continuous operation.”

Jayce burst out laughing. He blamed his own sense of growing exhaustion, but it did answer one of his nagging questions about Viktor’s condition.

And in a weird way, confirmation that Viktor could never eradicate that final shred of humanity was what finally felt like victory to Jayce.

“Yes, yes,” Viktor grumbled. “Gloat all you like.”

“Nah.” Jayce chuckled and stepped back, satisfied. “I’ll just leave you to your thoughts for now. But who knows? Maybe I’ll see you in your dreams later.”

Jayce winked. Mel facepalmed. Viktor’s voice box’s speaker crackled as he sputtered, unable to form a coherent response. 

Not quite like old times, but close enough for now.